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  • Writer's pictureDante Mazza

Peavey–Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator

Updated: Feb 1


The Peavey-Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator in June 2022


This concrete tower rising from the parking lot of a kitchenware manufacturer in a Minneapolis suburb may seem unremarkable to a modern casual visitor. Most people today would not even give it a second glance. But that's only because of how commonplace towers like it have become. This particular tower is unique because it was the first of its kind in the nation.


The Peavey-Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, was America's first concrete grain elevator, a daring prototype that set the stage for a fundamental shift in the agriculture business at the dawn of the 20th century. At the time of its construction, the public viewed the tower as an oddball creation they doubted would work. Today, it's considered the industry standard.


The Elevator is a National Historic Landmark significant for its role in 19th and 20th-century engineering and economics.


 

Minneapolis & St. Louis Park


St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis is the only major waterfall on the Mississippi River and has been the lifeblood of industry in the city for well over a century


As for many other cities along its shore, the Mississippi River built and defined Minneapolis. That very name comes from a combination of the native Dakota word for water, "Mni," and the Greek word for city, "Polis." Even so, Minneapolis is a unique case. The navigable portion of the Mississippi begins and ends just to the south in Saint Paul, so it wasn't commercial river traffic that built the city but rather a unique feature: a massive waterfall.


St. Anthony Falls today sits in the middle of downtown Minneapolis, named by Father Louis Hennepin, namesake of the county where the city is located. Minneapolis began as settlements around the falls and was incorporated as a city in 1867. In the days before electricity, a waterfall of this size meant serious power. But without any electrical devices to power, it could be used only for one essential purpose: milling.


The first mills to pop up in Minneapolis were lumber mills, taking advantage of the plentiful supply of solid timber in the area. But once much of that timber had been cleared, the dominant industry became farming. Minneapolis entered its primary industrial era as the nationwide center, along with Buffalo, New York, of flour milling, earning the nickname "The Flour Milling Capital of the World."


On either side of the falls stand two great reminders of this time in the city and nation's history. The Pillsbury "A" Mill (shown below) and the Washburn "A" Mill Complex were both built in the late 1800s, are both National Historic Landmarks, and face each other across the Mississippi. The Pillsbury Mill is now a residential building but was operational until the early 21st century. The Washburn Complex was the home of the Gold Medal Flour brand and now houses the Mill City Museum, which interprets and records the milling history of Minneapolis.


The Pillsbury "A" Mill faces St. Anthony Falls and was one of the most significant flour mills in the world until the early 21st century


Flour is made of grain, usually wheat in the United States, and all that grain had to come from somewhere. Buffalo became a milling center because of its location at the Great Lakes and Erie Canal intersection. Grain grown in the Midwest could be shipped by water across the lakes to Buffalo, and the milled flour could then be sent along the canal to the Hudson River, New York City, and the world beyond. Minneapolis was physically much closer to where a large amount of the nation's grain was grown, but without a navigable river, it had to rely on overland transportation. The introduction of the railroad solved the transportation problem, but the city still needed a sort of "intake center" to handle the large amounts of grain coming in for the mills. It's not as though the grain could be stored on barges like in Buffalo.


Enter St. Louis Park. The Village of St. Louis Park was incorporated in 1886 by "a small community of farmers and landowners" who "envisioned a trade and industrial center," according to a town history posted on a sign near the grain elevator. The name came from the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad, which ran through the area. That railroad had explicitly been incorporated by some of the leading Minneapolis mill operators to ship wheat from Minnesota, Iowa, and South Dakota farms into the city and the finished flour products out to market, including via a connection to the Saint Paul and Duluth Railroad and Duluth's port on Lake Superior.


Minneapolis' previous milling industry, lumber, even helped build St. Louis Park via lumber dealer T.B. Walker, who set up the Minneapolis Land and Investment Company to help develop the new town. The Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad tracks also ran through St. Louis Park, giving the town access to much of the Midwest. The area's developers hoped to turn it into a manufacturing powerhouse, with factories creating agricultural plows and other tools. The idea caught on in the town's early years, and "by the early 1890s, the downtown area of St. Louis Park near Wooddale Avenue had three hotels and a number of industrial firms," according to the sign mentioned above.


Among the businesses that sprung up in St. Louis Park were grain elevators, serving as places to store all of the wheat being shipped in on the railroads. A district of these grain elevators developed along the tracks, near where the Peavey-Haglin elevator stands today. Frank Peavey owned many of them.


St. Louis Park did not end up becoming an industrial city. Due to its proximity to Minneapolis, it became a primarily residential locale once streetcars and interstate highways arrived. Its post-WWII building boom helped define the suburbanization of America in those years, with rambler and Cape Cod-style homes on tree-lined streets snapped up by the hundreds by returning war veterans with GI Bill loans. Shopping centers soon followed, and in 1954, St. Louis Park was incorporated into a city. The population currently stands around 50,000.


The Peavey-Haglin Elevator and the Nordic Ware kitchenware manufacturing company that owns it today are two of the few physical reminders left of the industrial past of both St. Louis Park and the greater Minneapolis area.


 

Grain Elevators & Concrete


A windmill from the early 1800s used for grinding grain in Water Mill, New York


When grain was ground at windmills like the one pictured above, it could be brought in one sack at a time on a cart drawn by oxen or horses because milling capacity was limited. With the sole exception of an occasional water wheel, windmills had been the dominant milling technology even before Don Quixote battled with them in the 1600s. But by the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution and American capitalism had changed everything.


As the University of Nebraska Lincoln explains, "Grain elevators emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century in North America when agriculture shifted from a subsistence-based to a cash-market economy as wheat farmers of the Great Plains states and provinces began mass, long-distance distribution of their produce."


As previously mentioned, Buffalo, New York, was one of the critical places where grain was distributed. Buffalo sat at the intersection of Lake Erie and the Erie Canal, which provided access to the Hudson River, New York City, and the markets of the whole world. Due to this strategic location, more grain was coming through Buffalo by the mid-1800s than previously thought possible. One problem: all that grain took days to unload from barges coming in off the lake because the work had to be done by hand, barrel by barrel, and sack by sack. Plus, all that grain had to be stored somewhere once unloaded.


It would take a partnership between business and engineering, just like Peavey and Haglin's, to solve this problem. In 1842, Bufflao entrepreneur Joseph Dart opened the world's first steam-powered wooden grain elevator, designed by engineer Robert Dunbar, who in turn drew on the work of Oliver Evans, who had revolutionized the flour milling industry in the Delaware River Valley by harnessing the power of steam. The scoops on the elevator's conveyor belt would quite literally elevate the grain that they either scooped out of a barge or got filled with by the hand of a grain scooper and dump it into a large, tall wooden structure for storage. The grain could then be emptied of the elevator from the bottom using the force of gravity.


As Buffalo's Industrial Heritage Committee writes, "Dart's elevator unloaded over 229,000 bushels of grain during its first year of existence." A process that had once taken days now took only mere hours. The "elevator" moniker stuck, and the idea spread like wildfire. The Committee explains, "Less than fifteen years after his elevator was built, ten grain elevators were in operation near the Buffalo Harbor, with a combined total storage capacity of more than a million and a half bushels. By the end of the Civil War, Buffalo had become the world's largest grain port."


Storing all that grain indoors also had perks. The precious cargo was saved from the elements, water damage, rodents, and pests and could be easily accessed for weighing or quality checks. For the first several decades of elevator use, however, 100 percent were built from wood, leaving the grain highly susceptible to one major threat: fire.


That left the door open for another building material, an opening that Peavey and Haglin would later seize upon. Coincidentally, around the same time grain elevators were being developed, an ancient building material was coming back into use. Concrete was first used in the Western world in ancient Rome. Both the Colosseum and the Pantheon are built in large part from it. The post-industrial era, however, demanded something even more potent.


The Elevator's National Historic Landmark Nomination Form identifies two critical moments in concrete history that helped make the structure possible: "the development of Portland cement in 1871 and the introduction of reinforcing rods in the 1880s." Portland cement was first created in England and is so named because it resembles Portland stone, found on the Isle of Portland in the English Channel. The first version of Portland cement was created in the 1820s but was heavily refined over the following decades. In the United States, according to the Penn State College of Engineering, Portland cement was created by the Coplay Cement Company in Pennslyvania's Lehigh Valley in the early 1870s using a proprietary blend of raw materials from that area. The company's cement won top honors for quality at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Before its work, all Portland cement in America had to be imported from Europe.


As for reinforced concrete, the French gardener Joseph Monier is credited with introducing it to the world with a simple invention: a flower pot. Monier put an iron mesh inside his concrete flower pots after discovering they were not strong enough for his liking. He patented his ideas in the late 1860s, and it was soon clear the reinforcing method could be applied structurally. Roughly a decade after Monier's flower pot was revealed to the public, reinforced concrete was used in some private residential projects in New York State. A German company bought the rights to some of Monier's patents and started using reinforced concrete as a commercial building material in the 1880s. The rest, as they say, is history.


As the Elevator's Nomination Form puts it, "First used in bridges and dams, reinforced concrete ultimately found application in the construction of almost all types of structures. The building material is limited only by the structural viability of the form into which it is poured... The material's physical characteristics of comprehensive strength, durability, and plasticity when combined with its low cost made its potential application almost unlimited."


With those unlimited possibilities in mind, Peavey and Haglin set out to use concrete for something that had never been done before and, in doing so, permanently altered the physical landscape of American agriculture.


 

Peavey & Haglin


This portrait of Peavey appears on the informational sign located near the Elevator


Frank Hutchinson Peavey was born in Eastport, Maine, in 1850. Eastport is today one of the least populated cities in Maine, with just over 1,000 residents. Located on Moose Island along the eastern border with Canada, the town was a significant port in Peavey's day. His father was a lumber and shipping merchant who died when Frank was nine. He sold newspapers to help support his family while finishing school.


From that point onward, Peavey's life seems to have followed the most American path possible. An easterner moving west, from rags to riches, through boom and bust, with an unquestioned work ethic and a simple brilliance and intellect that sent him soaring above the competition. He was saving money, borrowing money, starting businesses, losing businesses, and moving around.


After moving from Maine (legend says on the very day the Civil War ended) through Chicago, Peavey settled in Sioux City, Iowa, where in 1874, at age 24 or 25, he went into business with his brother James, selling farming equipment to the area's new settlers. Together, they formed the F. H. Peavey Company. However, the Peavey brothers changed the game with a straightforward innovation: they accepted grain as payment. The reason? All that grain could be quickly shipped to market on trains and barges. Peavey built four Great Lakes cargo ships to help move the product. He also worked with railroads to extend their lines into grain-producing areas like Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. The faster move to market meant more profits and a greater need for grain production.


But all that grain had to be stored somewhere. While Peavey didn't invent the grain elevator, he embraced the new technology. He used it to his advantage, building hundreds of elevators in critical locations where the grain could be milled or quickly shipped to market. Peavey thus became a pioneer of the "grain merchandising business," which the Nomination Form describes as an "extensive business of buying grain from the region's farmers, storing it in his country elevators, and moving it to the flour mills."


In the 1880s, Peavey decided to move his headquarters to Minneapolis, a natural choice given its high concentration of mills and the fact that most of his principal customers were members of the Minneapolis Millers Association. Peavy then made sure to purchase even more grain grown along the railroads leading into the city. As Frank said years later in 1900, "This city is the largest primary wheat market in the world and is the home of the greatest number of grain elevator owners, and to abide here is a necessity for those in the trade... we are the largest city at the head of the Mississippi River and at the head of the chain of great lakes; hence we are commercially most favored by nature as well as by man."


Peavey's method of buying and storing grain along the railroad lines was so effective that competitors often copied it. Frank had a simple solution when that happened: he bought the competition. In no time at all, Frank Peavey was known throughout Minnesota and the agricultural community as "The Elevator King." While most of his elevators were in Minnesota, he owned several in Iowa, where the business started, and was expanding into North and South Dakota.


Peavey also helped popularize the concept of the Terminal Elevator. This was a larger elevator than the ones scattered throughout the farming country near the railroad tracks, placed in a more central location, like St. Louis Park. These terminal elevators were where buyers and sellers gathered to inspect the grain, set a price, and make the sale happen. One of Peavey's most famous terminal elevators is on the lakeshore in Duluth.


Peavey was about to revolutionize the concept of the terminal elevator, but he needed some help.


A portrait of Charles F. Haglin from the early 1900s, held in the Hennepin County Library Biography Files


Charles F. Haglin lived a life that paralleled Peavey's in some crucial ways. A child of Huguenot (French Protestant) and German descent, he, too, was born in the eastern part of the country (Hastings, New York) and headed west to pursue his career, stopping first in Chicago for training as an architect before moving to Minneapolis in the 1870s. Haglin was a civil engineer and contractor who helped the city become the modern metropolis it is today. He was involved in constructing the combination of Minneapolis City Hall and Hennepin County Courthouse, which still stands in the heart of downtown, and one of the city's early skyscrapers: the Rand Tower.


It's not precisely known how Peavey and Haglin became partners, but it seems likely that a wealthy and forward-looking businessman enlisted the (paid) help of one of his city's most prominent builders. Whatever the reason for their cooperation, the two men were about to change industry and history with the tower that today bears both their names.



 

The Elevator

Today, the Peavey-Haglin elevator towers above the Cedar Lake Trail


Peavey may have been the Elevator King, but he had one big problem. All of his elevators were made of wood and were therefore prone to damage or outright destruction by fire, especially fires sparked by the steam trains carrying grain. That made them expensive to insure, and the steadily increasing fire insurance premiums were eating into profits. Peavey had been quite literally burned before. Early in his career, at the tender age of 19, he lost his farming equipment business in a fire and wound up nearly $2,000 in debt, a small fortune back then. After years of success, Peavey finally had the resources to ensure something like that never happened again. To do so, he would need to fund an experiment.


In 1899, Peavey partnered with Haglin to construct the concrete elevator. Using concrete, the pair could avoid the fire issue and ensure the tower would be large enough to hold as much grain as possible. Another way to ensure maximum capacity was to make the elevator round, essentially a giant tube or tank that could be filled to the brim with grain as though it were water.


The tower was built layer by layer


The pair used slip forms or molds to make a concrete structure in a circular shape. These were round, made of wood, braced with steel, and then filled with concrete. Once the concrete dried, the form was moved up to the top of the circle, and the process was repeated, building layer upon layer like a giant concrete wedding cake. This layered construction is visible upon closely examining the tower, as seen above. Records show that Haglin later got patents for molds and concrete piles in Europe, and while it's unclear if they were related to his work on the elevator, it seems likely given the timing. At the very least, it shows he was deeply involved with concrete construction in this period.


The base of the tower has the thickest walls


The walls at the top of the tower are thinner and feature the entry points for the grain


While the diameter of the elevator remains constant at 20 feet across, the thickness of the walls decreases from at least an entire foot at the base to 8 inches near the top. Grain was loaded into a ground-level bucket elevator and carried to the entry points pictured above.


By the fall of 1899, the elevator had risen to its original height of 68 feet. It was loaded with grain to be stored through the winter. But it wasn't the storage that worried the project's observers. Instead, it was widely expected that the tower would collapse. Some thought it would fall apart the moment the first few kernels of grain entered. But when that prediction proved false, the focus shifted to what could happen once all the grain inside was emptied, and there was no substance but air inside the large concrete "tube." The spring 1900 release of the grain from the elevator would be a historical event, with the world watching for the expected implosion. The press even caught wind of the pending experiment, and soon, the tower had a nickname: "Peavey's Folly."


While waiting for the big day, Peavey dispatched Haglin to Europe to evaluate the grain elevators. Word of concrete elevators in Romania had influenced the tower's design in Minnesota. Haglin set off to find out if the rumors were true. He brought along his young son Eddie and Peavey's son-in-law Frank T. Heffelfinger, who evaluated the prospect of building grain elevators in Russia. Frank's diary tells the story of their journey.


The group entered Europe through London, then made their first stop in Hamburg, Germany, where they found no concrete elevators in sight. They headed to the Brunswick region to meet a man named G. Luther, the designer of an elevator constructed of Hennebique concrete and steel. Heffelfinger's diary says it had square bins with walls about eighteen inches thick, supported by horizontal and vertical rods. These were the same type of elevators said to exist in Romania.


Before heading there to track those elevators down, though, the group stopped in Copenhagen, where they found large concrete elevators inside a brick warehouse and conducted a full investigation. Heffelfinger wrote, "Haglin is down there this morning to take some measurements and, of course, will have an accurate sketch. The wall[s] seemed all OK but were cracked slightly, but H. says it is largely because of the thinness and the improper quantities of cement."

The group moved from Demark to Romania, entering Budapest and meeting with a local banker who owned many of the city's elevators and even had traveled to Minneapolis and dined with Charles Pillsbury. Next, it was on to the grain capital of Romania, the city of Braila. The group marveled at the grain trade there along the Danube's banks and figured that each of the city's 80,000 inhabitants was somehow dependent on the grain trade for their livelihood.


Here, the expedition came to the purpose of its journey: examining the Romanian elevators. They found that the bins were hexagonal with rounded corners, fitted together like the cells of a honeycomb. Heffelfinger called it "a finer looking building than I expected to see and better constructed and arranged than any we have seen heretofore," with "no cracks visible." He was also "advised by men that grain keeps all OK. Claim it would keep for a year if put in in good condition." The visit left Heffelfinger "fully convinced that our construction is all right and even better than this." Nothing in Europe could compare to the circular, tubular elevator they had built in Minnesota. As the nomination form says, "Returning home, Haglin reported that the European engineers and builders were not more advanced than their American counterparts."


Their mission accomplished, Haglin and his son headed for Paris, where they visited another grain elevator in the countryside nearby before returning to London and heading home. Heffelfinger continued to Russia, where he dined with the American ambassador and met with the Russian Emperor Nicholas II's finance minister about the possibility of building grain elevators in that country. Heffelfinger was told he and Peavy could build their elevators in Russia but not operate them, which meant the investment would not be good. Before heading home, Heffelfinger stopped in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp, Paris, and Liverpool.


Once everyone was back in Minnesota, it was spring and time to release the grain from the elevator. In May 1900, a crowd gathered in St. Louis Park for the big event. The spectators were kept cordoned off a safe distance from the tower in case the implosion they had all come to see happened. According to tradition, however, Haglin was so confident in his design and engineering that he stood directly at the base of the elevator as it was emptied.


Of course, the experiment was a great success. The tower held and showed no signs of structural weakening. The grain was in good condition. The viability of a concrete grain elevator had been proven beyond a doubt.


The experimental elevator in St. Louis Park was immediately extended to its current height of 125 feet, though it was never again used to store grain. It was also, of course, never torn down and remains standing as a tribute to this transformative moment in history.


Peavey ordered the construction of a massive complex of concrete elevators on the lakeshore in Duluth, which still stands. He did not, however, live to see its completion. Frank Peavey died on December 30, 1901, somewhat unexpectedly at 51. He left behind a $1 million life insurance policy and his "Elevator King" empire. His surviving descendants, including son-in-law Heffelfinger, built the business into an even larger conglomerate that merged with Conagra in the 1970s. The name "Frank Peavey Heffelfinger" was passed on to generations of men in the family. Peavey Plaza, named for the family, stands in downtown Minneapolis on Nicollet Mall next to the home of the Minnesota Orchestra.


Charles Haglin died in 1921, leaving behind a legacy of incredible buildings that still define the Minnesota landscape, including his namesake elevator, the complex in Duluth, and critical structures in downtown Minneapolis.


The grain elevator in June 2022 next to a St. Louis Park city water tower

 

Designation


The National Historic Landmark file for the Peavey-Haglin Experimental Grain Elevator held by the National Archives includes extensive documentation about the structure's designation process, which appears to have been routine. Nevertheless, the documents provide an excellent record of the vast amounts of paper and legwork necessary to get the National Historic Landmarks Program off the ground, especially in an era well before email or digital file sharing.


The record begins with a March 30, 1979, letter from the St. Louis Park Historical Society President to then-Minnesota Senator David Durenberger (R). The Senator was informed by the letter that the grain elevator had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and was now eligible for National Historic Landmark (NHL) designation. He was asked to write to the Historic Site Survey's Chief to support the designation.


The letter-writing campaign on behalf of the elevator was not limited to Senator Durenberger's office. Minnesota's other then-Senator, Rudy Boschwitz (R), seems to have contacted the Department of the Interior to support the designation, along with local Congressman Bill Frenzel (R). The record includes the reply letters from the Interior Department to all three politicians, assuring them that the grain elevator had been marked as having national significance and would be reviewed for NHL designation.


Two years pass before the following letter in the record, written by St. Louis Park Mayor Phyllis McQuaid to a Department of Interior official in September 1981, expressing her "hope that the National Historic Landmark Program Advisory Board will favorably consider elevating the status of this site to a National Historic Landmark."


Just two days after the Mayor's letter, the president of the Northland Aluminum Products Company, now known as Nordic Ware, the All-American manufacturing company that developed the bundt cake pan and still owns the elevator, received a letter from the Interior Department blaming the two-year delay on a reorganization within the Department and changes to the law. One of those legal changes created a new requirement that the property owners eligible for NHL status either concur with or reject the idea of a designation. The company was asked to provide its written concurrence. At the same time, Senators Durenberger and Boschwitz were invited by Interior to comment on the potential designation.


Just shy of a month after receiving the letter from the Department, Nordic Ware replied, noting that they were running a crucial American manufacturing business and "are therefore willing to give our concurrence to recognition of the Peavy-Haglin Concrete Elevator as a National Historic landmark only on a conditional basis, with the understanding that such designation will not interfere with our present and future rights to fully control access to and utilization of this structure and adjacent land for whatever purposes we may desire."


The conditional basis for the concurrence was not an issue for the Department of the Interior because roughly a month later, on November 20, 1981, Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt, serving under President Ronald Reagan, was informed that the Peavy-Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator had been recommended for designation as a National Historic Landmark during an October 7-9 meeting of the National Park System Advisory Board. Acting on the board's recommendation, Secretary Watt ordered the designation on December 21, 1981.


After the holiday season passed and the new year arrived, on February 3, 1982, Nordic Ware was informed that the designation was official. Senators Durenberger and Boschwitz were told of the designation along with Mayor McQuaid the next day.


The public was notified via a February 10, 1982 press release from the Department of the Interior, which announced the designation of nine new National Historic Landmarks, including the elevator, Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Michigan, the Bear Butte in South Dakota, and more. The announcement read:


"Peavy-Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator, Minneapolis, Minn.
Completed in 1900, this structure is the first cylindrical concrete grain elevator in the United States and, perhaps, the world. It is the forerunner of a building type that dominates the landscape in grain-growing regions of the Nation. It is owned by Northland Aluminum Products, Inc."


A few weeks after the designation, in early March 1982, Mayor McQuaid asked the Interior Department about a "plaque or sign for this site," which she hoped could be unveiled during the annual St. Louis Park Civic Day in July. The mayor was told that the Department had no money for a plaque, and it had to be requested by the property owner. (Editor's note: There is no record of an NHL-specific plaque being installed, and there was not one visible at the property when I visited the elevator in June of 2022.)


In April of 1982, the National Park System Advisory Board recommended that the elevator be recorded by the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER). According to letters to Nordic Ware, such a record would consist of "large format photography and a written history of the grain elevator."


Much like the situation with the plaque, the Department had no money to fund the HAER project. It asked Nordic Ware for support, and the company pledged $1,000. The Minnesota Chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) was also asked to financially support the HAER survey, which was eventually completed. The resulting documentation and photos are held in the collection of the Library of Congress and are available to view here. ASCE also later designated the elevator as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.


 

Significance


The elevator rises from the Nordic Ware parking lot


Peavey and Haglin's experiment proved an engineering marvel that sparked a revolution in the agriculture business. As soon as the project confirmed the viability of concrete grain elevators, they started popping up across America's grain-growing regions. Concrete elevators became most popular at the flour mills that had created the need for elevators in the first place, including at the mill that became the Mill City Museum referenced at the start of this post, as shown below.


The old mill that now houses the Mill City Museum features several concrete elevators


Another popular place for concrete elevator construction was terminals where grain could be stored between shipments by water and rail. Peavey built his own massive concrete elevator bank on the shore of Lake Superior in Duluth, and several concrete elevators stand on the shore of Lake Erie in the aforementioned city of Buffalo, where the concept of grain elevators was born. The NHL nomination form also notes that "In more recent times the concrete elevator has played a major role in storing the large quantities of government owned surplus wheat."


German architect Walter Gropius designed and lived in this National Historic Landmark house in Lincoln, Massachusetts, while teaching architecture at Harvard. Gropius was inspired by concrete elevators in the U.S and around the world and went on to become one of the leading pioneers of modern architecture


Coming right at the dawn of the 20th century, the concrete elevator also stood as a symbol of the ongoing transition from agrarian society to the modern, mechanized age. Early modern architects were enamored with concrete elevators, starting with Walter Gropius, founder of the German Bauhaus school. His 1913 article "The Development of Modern Industrial Architecture" in the Yearbook of the Deutscher Werkbund featured photos of concrete elevators worldwide, including in Buffalo and Minneapolis (but not the Peavey-Haglin elevator itself).


The Gropius article had a profound impact on fellow modern architecture pioneer LeCorbusier. Born in Switzerland and raised in France, LeCorbusier entered art school when the Peavey-Haglin elevator was built. As the NHL nomination form explains, LeCorbusier loved concrete elevators because he "believed that they embodied and symbolized a rhythmic organization which promised to guarantee harmonic relationships in an industrial age."


LeCorbusier republished the Gropius pictures in an article of his own. Still, as chronicled by later research at the University of Kansas, he heavily doctored the images by painting over parts of them with gouache to "remove signs of ornamentation in Gropius’ photographs and create the illusion of straight lines and hard angles."


Holding up his faked images as the real thing, LeCorbusier praised "the American grain elevators and factories" as "the magnificent first fruits of the new age," a quote that has since been reprinted in nearly every history of the Peavey-Haglin elevator. The doctored photos were reprinted dozens of times and not revealed as frauds until decades later. They captured the hearts and minds of modern architecture enthusiasts around the world, some of whom started seeking out concrete grain elevators to admire during their travels.


Yet, as the NHL nomination points out, for all their significance to modern architecture, concrete elevators are inherently a symbol of a rural landscape: "Historians and antiquarians also admire it as a symbol of time and place. The grain elevator rising from an often flat landscape reveals and symbolizes the presence of productive agriculture. For many, the elevator is a cultural symbol of an agrarian society with its rural values, customs, and slow paced way of living."


For all the symbolism of concrete elevators in general, the Peavey-Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator gains significance from a simple fact: it was the first. Without it, LeCorbusier would have had no images to doctor or concrete elevators to praise. A tower that today would hardly earn a second glance from most people still stands proud as a symbol of American agriculture, engineering, ingenuity, capitalism, and, of course, history.




 

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